Couples desperate for a baby don’t realise they may only get one chance with fertility treatment.
That was the warning from one man who said he and his partner had been forced to fund their second cycle of IVF (in vitro fertilisation) after their first attempt failed.
They felt that the clock was ticking and they couldn’t afford to risk waiting any longer, he said.
NHS Forth Valley has come in for criticism for putting those who were unsuccessful back to the bottom of the queue.
Now the Scottish Government is to step in and tell the health board to drop the practice – and take action to end the lengthy wait for IVF.
Couples wanting IVF only get two attempts funded by NHS Forth Valley, one of only four health boards in Scotland who impose this limit.
A report by Infertility Network Scotland claimed the queue bumping was a form of “rationing”.
However, since the document was published last year the length of time local couples have to wait has risen dramatically. It was 14-18 months, with NHS Lothian the longest wait in the country at three years. But new statistics show that couples in Forth Valley may wait up to four years before their first cycle of treatment.
However, if they go privately – and pay around £3500 – they could be seen within six weeks.
Warning of the lengthy delay, the man said: “If it takes four years to reach the top of the queue, then you go through the treatment and, if that fails have to wait another four years, a lot of people will discover they then don’t make the under-35 age limit.
“Couples would really have to start trying for a baby when they are 25 if they are to get two cycles funded by the NHS.”
The 31-year-old added that as well as saving every penny they could, he and his partner (29) were also finding the whole experience very stressful.
He wrote to NHS Forth Valley to voice his concerns, but the reply gave small comfort, only confirming that there was “little prospect of an early solution”.
The health board has said that the number of couples seeking treatment has risen rapidly in recent years – 20 patients in 2002/03 and 120 in 2009/10, blaming couples waiting longer before deciding to have children.
A spokeswoman for NHS Forth Valley said: “Fertility declines naturally with age. Since many couples now start a family later in life, the number of requests for infertility treatment is increasing year on year. There is now a waiting list for treatment.
“In the current financial climate, it has not been possible to increase the overall budget for infertility services. Our policy, which is similar to several other NHS boards in Scotland, therefore aims to ensure that couples get a first chance at IVF as quickly as possible. This is explained to all couples at the time they are first referred for treatment.”
She added that research had shown that the best chance of pregnancy is during the first cycle, with chances decreasing after each additional treatment which was why couples who failed to conceive were asked to return to the waiting list rather than being prioritised ahead of couples who are still waiting for a first chance of treatment.
Minister for Public Health, Michael Matheson, who is also the Falkirk West MSP, criticised the policy. He said: “It is unacceptable that patients in NHS Forth Valley go to the bottom of the waiting list after each unsuccessful cycle of IVF treatment. The Review of Infertility Services in Scotland, published by the Government in 2007, was clear that patients should be allowed to undergo successive cycles of IVF within a reasonable timescale agreed between themselves and the clinicians providing the treatment.
“Ministers will raise this unacceptable practice during NHS Forth Valley’s annual review later this year, and will ask the Board to follow this up in writing with its plans to, not only stop this practice, but to address its long waiting times.”
He added that the National Infertility Group, set up last year to review current criteria and make recommendations, would report to him on progress in the autumn.